Saturday, July 31, 2010

A Way Home For Tulsa (AWFT); The Myth, The Mountain, and the Potential Magic

So much has been said about A Way For Tulsa (AWFT), and not all of it has been good. Most, comments, have been related to the confusion about what it is, and what it is supposed to do or accomplish. Sometimes really smart people can take simple ideas and complicate them where others cannot understand them or appreciate them. Well, let's break down the complex and make it where it is can hopefully be better understood.
How did A Way Home for Tulsa originate?
When Gail Richards and Judy Kishner decided to raise $30 million dollars in the Building Tulsa Building Lives campaign to create enough housing to end chronic homelessness in Tulsa, it seemed to us at the Mental Health Association in Tulsa, (and others agreed with us), that it made a lot of sense to also examine the services necessary to be utilized and "wrapped around" the chronic homeless (also referred to as the "hardest to house") to not only get them into housing, but to help keep them there until they stabilize in their new homes with all of the services they need in place.
A poorly kept secret is that while Tulsa has many, many wonderful non-profits with incredible boards and fabulous staffs, the level of cooperation and coordination among these service providers appears confusing and fragmented, and often ineffective in the eyes of the user of the services. "Go here for this, go there for that, and ride the bus across town to address those problems." Even if we have enough housing, these people will never make it without a highly coordinated and integrated service system that can adapt and integrate to their very complicated needs.
The homeless individual lives with a myriad of problems, including hygiene issues, mental and physical health problems, substance abuse addictions, homeless lifestyle patterns and friends, teeth problems, financial distress, spiritual depletion, legal entanglements, and on and on. The fact is no single agency, organization, or faith community, can go it alone to provide for all of the needs a person living homeless has developed over a long period of time. The alternative is these individuals need what all of our organizations have to offer, presented in an easily accessible, friendly, coherent, and effective manner that meets the specific needs of each of these special people. When you think that 80% of all homeless funds go to serve these 206 hardest to house individuals, the accomplishments of the goals of A Way Home For Tulsa becomes paramount if we are to agree chronic homelessness is unacceptable.
So go on...where did A Way Home For Tulsa originate?
It came from an agreement, led by Karen Davis and John Wolfkill, to chair a series of meetings and conversations that at one point involved 70 different individuals, agencies and organizations. Out of these discussions, meetings, all of them intense, and some a bit heated, came a consensus decision the first step to end chronic homelessness in Tulsa was to create a "centralized case management system" where all key "primary contact" organizations would participate. This participation would be conducted in a consistent, systematic,and organized manner, with commitments to participate over the long haul. The centralized case management system, now named Fresh Start, with commitments from 13 different primary contact organizations, will eventually be designed and "built to last." What cannot happen is that we get all fired up to do this, and gradually piece by piece get pulled away by other distractions or problems without the constant, steady commitment by all of us to work together to end chronic homeless in Tulsa. This commitment includes working together to end the horror for 206 Tulsans who have lived on our streets for years.
What is the current status of A Way Home For Tulsa?
Under Sandra Lewis's leadership, the first phase of development involving the case management system called Fresh Start is meeting and beginning to function on a consistent basis. While not yet operating at a level that will eventually develop, the experience and practice of different representatives from different organizations with different ways of doing things working closer together, has begun. The governance for the 13 separate entities that will manage and oversee the operations of Fresh Start is being finalized under the leadership of the Long Term Care Authority. This is not easy, as there are many competing interest needing to be worked out, and strong egos have strong opinions. I am confident we will get there. Fundraising has begun with a wonderful gift from the Hardesty Foundation, and other fundraising efforts are underway. The funds will go to provide grants to the participating organizations to help them maintain and pay for their time at the Fresh Start meetings and the extra time that is required to outreach to these hardest to house individuals. The funding will pay the organizations time to help these individuals move from homelessness, to housing, to engagement with the services they need, and ultimately, to stability.
What is the role of the Long Term Care Authority?
No other component of A Way Home For Tulsa has created more buzz and confusion than the role, and the funding needed in the first year for the services provided by the Long Term Care Authority. First, many local funders have never heard of LTCA. The fact is they have been around for at least 20 years in Tulsa and across the state. For years, they have been intimately involved in their work with the Oklahoma Department of Human Services in the design of better systems to serve Oklahomans with long-term care needs through the Advantage Program. Since that time, they have returned to their origninal function of working closer with local non-profits and health care systems like OU School of Community Medicine and OSU Medical Center to develop a community access network. They specialize in the development of systems change initiatives, strategic planning, infrastructure design, training, and consulting. Their long experience with the development of integrated case management will be critical to the success of achieving the goals of A Way Home For Tulsa. The Hardesty foundation gift was targeted to help pay for the one year funding for the expertise of the Long Term Care Authority. Their work to help the 13 organizations build our integrated network of service delivery to Tulsa's hardest to house individuals has already begun.
Educating the funders has also begun.
Karen Davis is helping to set up separate meeting with funders to better explain the goals and objectives of A Way Home For Tulsa. As mentioned, we have already met with the Hardesty Foundation and the United Way. Another meeting is scheduled with the United Way executive staff and we are scheduled with the Funder's Roundtable. Meetings with other funders are being developed.
The beauty of the plan from a funder's standpoint.
Accountability is a primary concern of every funder. Also, every funder talks about outcomes. A Way Home For Tulsa has the easiest to measure outcomes of any effort I can imagine. It is simple. There are 206 documented chronically homeless individuals in Tulsa, and we know their names. There initials go up on a board, and those names have to start coming down as people move into permanent housing with the needed services wrapped around them to help ensure housing stability. The organizations involved in AWFT are, as they should be, on the hook to bring these numbers down. If we cannot bring the numbers down, we have failed, and that cannot be an option.
Comparing Tulsa's effort to others around the country.
From the very beginning, I have said to anyone who would listen that our goal should be the first city in the United States to end chronic homelessness. I have been laughed at, eyes have rolled, and at times I have felt like I was being patted on the head. I remain undeterred. I know if we will set our "stuff" aside and really concentrate on these people and their special needs we can do this. We have a chance to do so something so special that people all over the country will be talking about it. What we are doing in Tulsa is already being noticed. I know that because I just represented us at the White House several weeks ago for the roll out of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness's strategic planning report. Go to the USICH website and find the Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Chronic Homelessness. What we are doing in Tulsa compares to what anyone in the country is doing to end homelessness in their own respective communities.
Let's get busy. It is a challenge of a lifetime.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Yale Residents Helping Trim Trees at Area Church

Here is a picture of residents from the Yale Avenue Apartments helping to trim the bushes at a local church in the area. This is all a part of the Housing Faith Alliance, and its effort to build "bridges of connectivity" in areas where our housing is located. It is both beneficial to the residents who reside in our housing sites, but it is mutually beneficial to the churches. May God continue to bless the work of the Housing Faith Alliance.

One of My Heroes

Kimberly Cummings,  my executive assistant,  and friend,  graduated yesterday from the Women In Recovery program.  I am so lucky to know this remarkable woman,  and our organization is so fortunate to have as one of our employees.

Kimberly represents what can be accomplished when this State rejects locking non-violent, disease addicted women AND men and turns to treatment alternatives. When will political leaders demonstrate leadership and stand up for jail diversion approaches for non-violent offenders that are more effective AND more cost-effective? Congratulations,  Kimberly.  Your mission is only beginning.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Today's thoughts...Mike Dowd, Lisa, and Sundry Items

We received word early this week that one of our beloved, almost invisible to most, volunteers, Mike Dowd, past away after a long battle with cancer. Mike was a friend and neighbor to our family for 30 years. Late last year Mike contacted me about wanting to learn more about the Mental Health Association in Tulsa's work with housing, people who are homeless and mentally ill, and how he might be able to contribute. Mike went on a long tour of our housing followed by a offer to work on needed repairs in our apartments as a volunteer utilizing a lifetime of developed carpentry skills. At the Ritz Apartments, a recent acquisition needing a great deal of work, Mike completed work on a burned out room that was converted to a bedroom increasing the size of the apartment, as well as other significant improvements to the property. I am told that Mike was there working, often 7 days a week, getting to know many of the residents, offering them rides and assisting them in a variety of ways. When asked about news from doctor visits, Mike would avoid discussing what he had been told, pushing off the inquiries with a comment like, "let's not talk or think about that. That is why I am doing this so I don't have to think about what the doctor is telling me." Mike will be missed, and his wife, Pam, and boys Dustin and Brandon, should be very proud. We have decided that Mike should be this year's Bill Packard Housing Award winner for volunteer contributions to housing to be presented at this year's Annual Meeting and Award Celebration.

Lisa, a local transitional age youth, who has grown up in the state child welfare system, is taxing all of the various agencies, organizations, and people involved trying to help her. But if not us, then who? Where would this girl be? Sure it isn't easy, but it is worth it. I am so proud of all of our staff, the staff from Youth Services of Tulsa, and others who have pitched in to help. While difficult, trying, and definitely frustrating, let me remind all of us, that is why we exist and why we chose this line of work. As I like to say..."if it was easy, everyone would be doing it." Go Lisa, go staff!

I don't think we realize what an incredible community, we live in where we live close together and we all know each other. As I like to say..."if you don't know them, you know someone who knows them." I was reminded how special our town is when I see volunteers who have been blessed with the gift of wealth and resources, who pitch in to raise money to help local non-profits be able to perform our work. Sometimes I hate it, but it takes money, and Tulsa is blessed with a special relationship between some of its most well-to-do citizens and its non-profit community. They care, they raise money, they give time, and they serve. We are blessed.

Connally Perry, one of our incredible employeeswho, posted an email showing communication from a church in town located near the Yale Ave. Apartments who was visited by a group of residents from the apartments who are helping trim their bushes at the church. He referred to the residents who performed the work as his heroes. are one of my heroes. That is how we roll...
Last week I lost my cool and went off on one of our residents. I have tried to reach Greg to apologize, but have so far been unable to to reach him. I can't tell you how bad I feel about my behavior toward Greg, and pray some day we can be reconciled to each other. Greg, if you are reading this...I am so sorry. There was no excuse for my behavior. I want to also apologize to anyone associated with our organization in any way, and pledge to all of you that I will, by God's grace, never do anything like that again.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The "New" Scarlet Letters

In Nathaniel Hawthorne's famous novel, a woman accused of adultery was forced to wear the letter "A," a symbol representing the accusation. While we have moved passed forcing public shame on a women for committing adultery, history demonstrates society merely moves onto a new "letter" representing the thing to fear. Today, being gay, Muslim, having AIDS, being "illegal," have become the new labels driving fear and hate. Another, apparently, is the label "homeless." Listen to ourselves as we talk and you hear the language of fear and loathing applied to anyone homeless. We don't want a person is homeless anywhere near us, and particularly, we don't want them to move out of homelessness and into housing near us. God forbid they have become homeless and additionally live with mental illness.

No matter over 4,000 different Tulsans in any given year lose their housing for all sorts of reasons and become "homeless," having to turn to our shelter system in order to avoid having to sleep on the streets. No matter 70% of these individuals never return to homelessness during their lives once they are able to stabilize, secure income, and locate affordable housing. To think about it, "apartments," affordable housing, and heaven forbid, mental illness are labels we put on people we want to avoid and have living somewhere else.
The sad irony of this, of course, every family in America, either has, or will have, someone who has experienced homelessness, lives with a mental illness or a alcohol or substance abuse issue, lives in a low cost apartment, may have been convicted of a felony, or may at one time or another have more than one of these labels that apply to them. But in our most shameless form of hypocrisy, somehow, the fear that is attached to people carrying these labels applies to someone else, and not to my Uncle Joe, my cousin Vinny, my brother, Aunt Mary, or my nephew. Shame on us!

The New Scarlett Letter

Friday, July 16, 2010

Where I Am Going With My Blog...

As executive director of the Mental Health Association in Tulsa, it is the purpose of this blog to address various and sundry mental health related topics, and invite others to join me in the conversation. It will be fun, challenging, frustrating, stimulating, and, at times, controversial. Hopefully, it will always be contributed to in a spirit of respect allowing people space to "agree to disagree."

Today's post from me is about the need to transform the way young adults are prepared to transition from state custody, either child welfare or juvenile justice. Currently, forget it. The "system" is totally failing these young adults in the absence of planning for their inevitable release from state custody. When will we stop and look at how these young people are prepared for transition to the adult world and the rights of adults while they are in state's custody? When we will begin to examine the comparison between how these young adults have been prepared for release, and how "normal" kids at home in their own families are prepared. What are the differences between these two sets of "systems," the one at our homes and the one in a state institution, a foster home, an inpatient psychiatric hospital? I'll give you one, and let's start the conversation.

The conversation in our homes about life after home starts around the age of 13, 14, or 15. If you grow up in the child welfare system, or the juvenile justice system, the conversation starts a few months, if not less, before "release." That is ONE, and there are many. Your turn. Let's put the list of comparisons together. Talk amongst yourselves.